Fierce Clashes Erupt Between Sudan’s Army and Paramilitary
Wider conflict feared as heightened tensions threaten transition to democracy
Fierce fighting erupted Saturday in Sudan’s capital between the military and the country’s powerful paramilitary force, raising fears of a wider conflict in the chaos-stricken country. A doctors’ group said at least three people were killed and dozens injured.
The sound of heavy firing could be heard across the capital, Khartoum, and its sister city of Omdurman, where both the military and the RSF have amassed tens of thousands of troops since an October 2021 military coup that derailed Sudan’s fragile path to democracy.
The clashes between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group capped months of heightened tensions between both sides that forced the delay of a deal with political parties to restore the country’s short-lived transition to democracy.
Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan told Al Jazeera TV: “We think if they are wise, they will turn back their troops that came into Khartoum. But if it continues, we will have to deploy troops into Khartoum from other areas.”
The RSF’s leader, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, called al-Burhan a “criminal” and a “liar.”
“We know where you are hiding and we will get to you and hand you over to justice, or you die just like any other dog,” he said in an interview with the station.
‘Fire and explosions are everywhere’
Residents described chaotic scenes in Khartoum and Omdurman as firing and explosions rang out in densely populated neighbourhoods. “Fire and explosions are everywhere,” said Amal Mohamed, a doctor in a public hospital in Omdurman. “All are running and seeking shelter.”
Another Khartoum resident, Abdel-Hamid Mustafa, said soldiers from both sides on armoured trucks were seen firing at each other in the streets and residential areas. “We haven’t seen such battles in Khartoum before,” she said.
Commercial flights turn back from Sudan
One of the flashpoints was Khartoum International Airport, where clashes grounded commercial Sudan-bound flights from Saudi Arabia, which turned back after nearly landing at the airport, flight tracking data showed Saturday.
Saudi Arabia’s national airline said one of its Airbus A330 aircraft was involved in “an accident.” Video showed the plane on fire on the tarmac. Another plane also appeared to have caught fire in the attack. Flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 identified it as a SkyUp Airlines Boeing 737. SkyUp is a Kyiv-based airline. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate said two civilians were killed at the airport, without specifying the circumstances. The committee said in a statement that another man was shot to death in the state of North Kordofan.
Meanwhile, the BBC reported that a correspondent for BBC News Arabic in Khartoum, Mohamed Osman, was beaten by a Sudanese soldier. The broadcaster said the army had stopped Osman’s car while he was en route to his job and that he was taken to army headquarters in Omdurman. While explaining his movements to officers, he was hit in the head from behind by a soldier, the BBC said.
The fighting comes after months of escalating tensions between the generals and years of political unrest after the October 2021 military coup.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats expressed extreme concern over the outbreak of violence. “We urge all actors to stop the violence immediately and avoid further escalations or troop mobilizations and continue talks to resolve outstanding issues,” Blinken wrote on Twitter.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres; the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell; the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat; the Arab League chief, Ahmed Aboul Gheit; and Qatar all called for a ceasefire and for both parties to return to negotiations to settle their dispute.
Former Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was ousted in the 2021 coup, warned of a possible regional conflict if the fighting escalates. He urged the leaders of the military and the RSF to immediately cease hostilities.
“Shooting must stop immediately,” he said in a video message posted on his Twitter account.
The military and the RSF traded blame for triggering the clashes, which centred in Khartoum but also took place in other areas across the country.
Current tensions between the military and the paramilitary stem from a disagreement over how the RSF should be integrated into the military and what authority should oversee the process. The merger is a key condition of Sudan’s unsigned transition agreement with political groups.
The fighting began at a military base south of Khartoum, with both sides trading accusations of initiating an attack. Clashes then spread in many areas across the capital, including around the military’s headquarters, the airport and the Republican Palace, the seat of the country’s presidency.
The RSF alleged in a statement that its forces controlled many strategic places in Khartoum and the northern city of Merowe, some 350 kilometres northwest of Khartoum. The military dismissed the claims as “lies.”
In a series of statements, the military also declared the RSF a rebel force and unleashed the powerful air force against RSF positions in and around Khartoum.
Volker Perthes, the United Nations envoy for Sudan, called on both parties for “an immediate cessation of fighting to ensure the safety of the Sudanese people and to spare the country from further violence.”
Perthes and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Sudan, Ali bin Hassan Jafar, were leading communications with al-Burhan, the country’s top military official, and Dagalo to embark on a dialogue to settle their dispute, said a UN official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
International powers Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates called on those fighting in Sudan to exercise restraint and work toward a political solution in the county.
The U.S. ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, wrote online that he was “currently sheltering in place with the Embassy team, as Sudanese throughout Khartoum and elsewhere are doing.” He urged both sides to cease fire.
“Escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous,” Godfrey wrote. “I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting.”